By Tripp Mickle
Alphabet Inc.'s Google plans to double the size of its team studying artificial-intelligence ethics in the coming years, as the company looks to strengthen a group that has had its credibility challenged by research controversies and personnel defections.
Vice President of Engineering Marian Croak said at The Wall Street Journal's Future of Everything Festival that the hires will increase the size of the responsible AI team that she leads to 200 researchers. Additionally, she said that Alphabet Chief Executive Sundar Pichai has committed to boost the operating budget of a team tasked with evaluating code and product to avert harm, discrimination and other problems with AI.
"Being responsible in the way that you develop and deploy AI technology is fundamental to the good of the business," Ms. Croak said. "It severely damages the brand if things aren't done in an ethical way."
Google announced in February that Ms. Croak would lead the AI ethics group after it fired the division's co-head, Margaret Mitchell, for allegedly sharing internal documents with people outside the company. Ms. Mitchell's exit followed criticism of Google's suppression of research last year by a prominent member of the team, Timnit Gebru, who says she was fired because of studies critical of the company's approach to AI. Mr. Pichai pledged an investigation into the circumstances around Ms. Gebru's departure and said he would seek to restore trust.
In addition to straining the existing team, those personnel changes have frayed Google's relationship with external groups focused on AI such as Black in AI and Queer in AI, which released a joint statement Monday criticizing Google for setting a "dangerous precedent for what type of research, advocacy, and retaliation is permissible in our community." The statement was earlier covered by Wired.
Ms. Croak called those exits a tragedy and said she agreed to fill the position because she thought she could help provide some stability in what has been a distressing time. A Princeton University graduate, she has a doctorate in social psychology and quantitative analysis and said she plans to bring her user-focused approach to engineering and concern about societal issues to the role.
"I thought, maybe, I could make a difference and carry on the work and have a larger impact," Ms. Croak said.
Health will be one area of focus for the group, she said. The AI team recently assisted in the development of an algorithm that can detect abnormal heart rhythms by scanning fingertips on an Android phone. During its development, she said the ethics team helped determine that darker-skinned people had more variabilities and errors in testings, which had to be addressed before the product's release.
Ms. Croak is one of very few senior Black executives at Google, where Black women account for 1.2% of the workforce. She has served as chair of Google's Black Leadership Advisory Group and has been active in calling for Silicon Valley companies to improve their diversity.
"They're disappointing numbers and I think that's true for so many companies in Silicon Valley," Ms. Croak said of the percentage of Black employees in Google's workforce. "Fortunately, in the last year or so, we've made a more concerted effort in attracting Black talent, but those numbers are pretty dismal."
She said that Google has been more proactive in providing mentorship to young Black staffers and said that it would take changing the culture across Silicon Valley to improve opportunities for people of color in tech.
"Sometimes I think it's the mind-set where you're very competitive and individualistic in your pursuits in the workplace and that sometimes can foster, not racism, but at least exclusion," Ms. Croak said.
Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires